Vulnerable beach towns can see future before storms hit

Sand washed up to cover the Ocean City boardwalk during 2011\'s Hurricane Irene (Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Brutal hurricanes, including Katrina, Ike, or Sandy have caused death, property destruction, and financial hardship for countless Americans.

Being able to better forecast possible scenarios before extreme weather hits could enable first responders, governments, and the public to make decisions to minimize the damage.

The ribbons of sandy barrier islands and beaches shift as hurricanes, nor’easters and other storms affect people’s lives.

The U.S. Geological Survey has created an online tool that allows anyone to interactively “see” past, present and future storm hazards.

The USGS Coastal Change Hazards Portal doesn’t require sophisticated technology — it runs on web browsers, tablets and smartphones.

The software allows the user to envision likely affects of extreme storms, shoreline change, and sea-level rise.

“Our goal was to make it easy for folks to find this kind of information in one place,” says USGS research geologist Rob Thieler.

Thieler, of the USGS Coastal and Marine Biology program in Woods Hole, Massachusetts says having decades of research data available in an online utility can help in decisions that involve emergency preparedness, ecosystem restoration, and where and how to develop coastal area.

“So people like first responders, who might be interested in storm scenarios or storm vulnerability can see the probability for a given storm of dune erosion or overwash, where sand and water wash across the roads and can damage infrastructure,” Thieler says.

Thieler says working with partners like the National Hurricane Center, officials can develop near-real-time forecast ability that allows people to make decisions.

Local at-risk beaches and coastlines

Thieler says local beaches along the Eastern Shore face moderate damage from hurricanes, and the danger changes as the coastline shifts.

“In Ocean City, just due to changes in the width of the beach or the height of the dune, the vulnerability of the coast changes,” says Thieler.

Thieler says the Assateague Island Island National Seashore is “a poster child” of how natural resources can be dramatically changed when heavy storms materialize.

“We know from long historical studies the north end of Assateague Island in particular has been eroding and migrating landward at the rate of several meters per year,” says Thieler. “It’s low and overwashed by storms on a fairly regular basis.”

With the new USGS tool, planners “can lay down three different ribbons along the coast, that show the probability of overwash of hurricanes of different magnitudes, the probability of being completely inundated, or the possibility of dune erosion.”

Interactive maps change to see how the coastline appeared — or will appear — in response to a Category 1 hurricane up to a Category 5.

“You can see where the shoreline was in the 1850s, 1930s, 1960s, on up to today.”

See a USGS tutorial on how to use its Coastal Change Hazards Portal.

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